How to Manage Chronic Pain in Young Children

It can be difficult to deal with ongoing pain as an adult, so it must be overwhelming for a child who lacks coping skills. For impressionable children, the pain may often be distorted or worsened by a host of factors including fear, lack of sleep or parental emotions. In the case of chronic pain in young children, it may feel like an unending nightmare for the patient as well as the parent.

If you are the parent of a child in chronic pain, it may be even more difficult for you.  One study in Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that most parents of young children with chronic pain conditions exhibited signs of mild to moderate depression. The good news, however, is that there are ways to manage chronic pain in young children.

Number of Children in Pain in the U.S.

It is estimated that almost 5 percent of children in the U.S. struggle with a chronic pain condition.  Among the most common health conditions in children are headaches, muscular disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions.

In addition to chronic health conditions, almost 5 million children in the United States undergo a surgical procedure each year. From 40 to 60 percent of these must deal with moderate to severe pain following the procedure.

More than $19.5 billion is spent on pediatric chronic pain annually. That is why the pediatric opioid prescription rates doubled from 1994 to 2007.  Unfortunately, more than 73 percent of these children with chronic pain issues continue to have them as adults, and many will continue with their need for opioid drugs.

How to Identify Chronic Pain in Children

Many parents mistakenly believe that kids are immune to chronic pain conditions.  That is why such conditions are under-diagnosed and under-treated.  As a parent, it can be difficult to distinguish between normal aches and a serious, ongoing health issue. Even if you believe your child, it is often easier to dismiss it than it is to seek treatment.

That is why it is important to recognize the red flags of chronic pain in children.

  • Pay special attention if your child exhibits pain related to headaches, musculoskeletal conditions or the abdomen because these are the most common chronic pain areas in children.
  • Don’t dismiss pleas for attention after an injury has healed. Many chronic pain conditions begin as a normal injury and persist after the original injury has healed.
  • Give more weight to the pain exhortations of your female children since females are more likely to develop chronic pain.
  • Be alert to emotional problems as depression and anxiety often accompany many chronic conditions in children.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if your child exhibits worsening symptoms or serious comorbidities like vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Visit your doctor if the pain interrupts your child’s sleep.

Managing Your Child’s Pain Symptoms

It may be especially difficult to manage your child’s chronic pain condition, even more so than if you had a chronic pain condition of your own. Many parents find it very hard to strike a balance between caring too much (and placing a burden of guilt on the child) or providing enough space. Similarly, your child may have a hard time honestly sharing how they feel if they are trying protect their parent’s feelings or are seeking out too much emotional reassurance.

Some of the most important ways to manage your child’s condition include

  • Learn about some of the most appropriate coping tools and have them ready. This may include apps or breathing exercises.  Carefully instruct your child in pain response exercises so that they can automatically initiate them when a pain attack strikes.
  • Design a holistic strategy to help your child cope with the pain. You should discuss with your family physician or pain specialist the most important components of this plan.  Monitor your child’s progress so that you can relay it to your doctor.
  • Institute a physical fitness regime. Start slowly, but you should eventually make it a habit. Exercise will not only improve their general health, but it will also boost emotional health and pain tolerance.
  • Create a healthy eating plan. In general, it is best to aim to improve the overall health of the child, but it may be appropriate to include some specialized foods like turmeric, olive oil and omega-3.
  • Modify your child’s school day if absolutely necessary. First of all, let your child’s teachers know about their condition so they can offer more leeway during a pain episode. You may also want to shorten their school day if needed.
  • Maintain as much normality as possible. In the long run, it can be detrimental to a child to treat them as health-compromised. So do your best to keep to a normal way of life if possible.  Normalized children enjoy less pain and a higher quality of life as adults.
  • Make sleep a top priority. It can be extremely difficult to get a child to fall asleep, especially if they are afraid that a pain episode will wake them up, but you should establish a rigid sleep routine so that they get accustomed.

Being a Good Parent

It is almost as painful to watch your child in pain as it is to experience that pain, and this is often worsened by the fact you may not know how to respond. That is why you should keep the following tips in mind.

  • Find emotional support for yourself.  Whether it is family and friends, a counselor or a support group, it is important to maintain your emotional health for the sake of your child. You can also learn important tips on how to parent an ailing child.
  • Refrain from asking your child about their pain. Paying too much attention to their pain condition can actually make them more sensitive to it. Instead ask them to alert you if the pain changes.
  • Allow your child some independence. In general, it is best to avoid treating your child like an invalid. The more your child can do on their own, the better it will be for them in the long run.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information. 

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